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United in Christ? United in faith? Unionized?

Photo: Elliot Brown/Twitter

It’s no secret: ordained ministry can be difficult. It can be a lonely vocation, and one that calls priests and pastors to places of vulnerability, and in some cases, treatment and standards that would not be tolerated in the corporate world.

And now, as reported by the London Free Press, “a group of United Church ministers has teamed up with Canada’s largest private-sector union to create Unifaith, the nation’s first union for clergy.”

While I’m sure the news might surprise many Anglicans, the concept is anything but new. Clergy unions have been discussed in this country and around the world for some time, perhaps most recently in the Romanian Orthodox Church. Churches have historically been supporters of trade unions as vehicles for social justice. Many of the relief and justice organization the church supports, like PWRDF, are unionized.

I think the creation of Unifaith could inspire some healthy conversation–for both laypeople and clergy. It’s already inspiring a fair amount of conversation here at the office (and on my screen).

Are clergy employees of the church or servants of Christ? Or both? Is there a difference?

Should clergy expect the same working conditions as secular workers?

What are the grievances of clergy who seek to unionize?

Can a church that has advocated workers’ rights credibly object to their own clergy seeking to organize?

What do you think? Leave your comments below, and let’s continue this discussion together. And no matter your views, I wonder if perhaps we should be asking what conditions brought us to this discussion in the first place?

About The Rev. Jesse Dymond

I'm a priest from the Diocese of Huron, serving as Online Community Coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada. I have a lifelong interest in computer technology, and continue to pursue interdisciplinary studies in science and theology. I love composing and performing music, cooking, photography, sailing, and riding vintage motorcycles.
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9 Responses to United in Christ? United in faith? Unionized?

  1. Just trying to think what a 21st C Jesus would say. He would ask why I think.

  2. I think there are deep theological reasons why clergy should resist organising into a union. think there is a problem if clergy adopt an attitude of “I work for Jesus – but only from 9-5!” Also, is organizing into a union in conjunction with another one ultimately stating that God is on the a particular side. After all, if Clergy to strike alongside the Steelworker Union over disputed pay increases, doesn’t that suggest that God does show favourtism, and is on the side of a certain union – which by nature is a political body.

    And what do we do with all the statements via Jesus saying that if there is a disagreement, deal with it privately before going to courts or civic magistrates. How can we model this if we feel the need to strike if we don’t get every fourth Christmas off?

    If push came to shove, I would probably suggest that a union for clergy is partly and abdication of the spirituality of our role in society and the church.

  3. Avatar of Robin Walker

    Kyle says: “a union for clergy is partly and [sic] abdication of the spirituality of our role in society and the church.” Quite so.

    While I substantially agree with Kyle about reasons for not unionizing clergy, it seems to me that we should ask ourselves about why the clergy involved have found it necessary or desirable to take this step. Surely this speaks to a deep dysfunction in clergy/church relationships. The union in question arose in another denomination, but we Anglicans are not so perfect ourselves.

    Without advocating unionization of Anglican clergy, I would instead call for some more consistent and helpful leadership from the wider church. Bishops, parish clergy, and congregations all have much to learn about how to handle the “Human Resources” side of church life.

  4. Avatar of Tony Houghton

    Our Pastors need all the support we can give them ,it is a thankless job but is one with the same amount of responsibility .On pastor once was tempted to put two signs on the pulpit . The side the pastor would see said “Sir ,that we should see Jesus” and on the side facing the congregation “Do you now hate me because I tell you the truth.A bigger question to ask ,should Christian belong to unions seeing what Paul wrote that we are to work as for the Lord and not to take into consideration how we are treated “be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ, not only when being watched, as currying favor, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,
    willingly serving the Lord and not human beings,”

  5. Dawn Leger

    I’ve never heard a priest say they are only interested in working Monday to Friday, 9-5, or that they want to fight for that. I think it is sad that when clergy speak about rights, or most workers for that matter, we diminish it to issues of convenience. Unions do far more. We are called to deal with one another, but when that fails, when you have gone to one, then gone with three and still mistreatment happens, then where is the court or magistrate? Our bishops, as caring as they are, are not trained in human resources and it is a lot to expect them to have the time let alone the expertise to deal with such situations. My understanding of this community chapter (not union) is a place for clergy to gather and advocate for one another.

    Jesse, thank you for reminding us that, as a church, we have historically been supportive of trade unions and fighting for workers’ rights. Unifaith might not be the right answer, but it is an attempt, and I am looking forward to seeing what comes of it.

  6. Judy Steers

    i am a lay person and I am not opposed to this. It brings to mind the stories of several clergy friends who have unfortunately been treated abominably by congregations and, not quite drummed out of town, but because of differences of approach or opinion, or worse, poisonous environments where the clergy member was ‘set up’ for failture, lost both their livelihood and their home, if they were living in a rectory. So, if a union were able to advocate for the clergy person in such a difficult situation, that would be a good thing. Unfortunately, there are far too many situations where employment standards are not followed by congregations. There are also too many situations where clergy people are consistently expected to work well over 60 or 70 hours per week. Servants of Christ, yes, absolutely (aren’t we all, if we are members of a congregation?) but also, all too often, mis-treated employees of a not-for-profit organization which does not have an excellent track record in human resources management or ethical treatment of workers.

  7. Avatar of David Chillman

    Sorry to come late to this matter, but I only came to Canada in January and have only just found The Community.

    In the UK, I was on the Executive Committee of the UK equivalent of this new union. In fact, we had contact with the people setting up Unifaith and shared with them our experiences in running a union for church workers.

    I am aware that there are very mixed feelings about the idea of clergy joining unions. In an ideal world, it shouldn’t be necessary. But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world where the church organisations (which are inevitably flawed and imperfect) are sustained by flawed and imperfect people. Even with the best will in the world, there are times when clergy can become victims of the organisation and need independent support in resolving a stressful situation. In the UK, the main reasons why clergy turned to the union for help were to do with bullying by church members and breakdowns in relationships with their bishop and/or archdeacon. It was not unusual for bullying AND breakdown in relationships to be part of the same problem.

    Sadly, we found that many clergy got no real help from bishops when they were facing problems in their parishes. (It may be different here in Canada!). Sometimes, they were made to feel that it was THEIR fault, or else the bishop would shrug his shoulders and say “there’s nothing I can do”. We found that what people wanted more than anything was someone independent from the problem who would listen and be able to offer constructive advice on what could be done.

    And I have to say that sometimes we found that senior clergy needed to be cautioned to follow the correct procedures when dealing with disciplinary matters. It was not unknown for clergy to be called to meetings with their bishop where they had no forewarning of the matter to be discussed and where they found themselves being pressured to agree to something that had been sprung on them in the meeting.

    Whilst there is a huge debate to be had about whether clergy are “employees” or not, the fact of the matter is that the working relationship is certainly akin to that of employer/employee. For me, the bottom line is that care of clergy and church workers should never be LESS than what is expected in employment law.

    In the UK, we never sought conflict. If it had reached that point, we all knew that there would be no winners – just losers. The best work of the union was done behind the scenes and without fuss. And often, it was done by a union representative sitting down informally with a bishop or an archdeacon and discussing the situation calmly and confidentially and reaching a solution that was satisfactory to all concerned.

    Personally, I hope that this new union will take off and be successful. From the discussions I was involved with a few years ago, I certainly know that there is a need for it. If it were opened to Anglican clergy, I would certainly consider joining – not only to protect myself but also to be able to offer support to clergy who were going through difficult times.

  8. Thank you, @david-chillman. You bring an interesting perspective to the table. No, we don’t live in a perfect world. Personally, I find this to be a very uncomfortable conversation, and one that could lead to new problems despite solving others. Earlier in this conversation, Kyle pointed to potential problems in joining trade unions with unrelated vocations, and Robin questioned whether there might be a way to be proactive about workplace bullying by treating the disease rather than the symptoms. I wonder: in the UK, was a solution found outside of wider trade unions? Do you have the sense that making use of an independent ombudsperson (outside the wider union discussion) would be helpful?

  9. Avatar of David Chillman

    “Robin questioned whether there might be a way to be proactive about workplace bullying by treating the disease rather than the symptoms”

    Absolutely! In the UK, we got fed up trying to pick up the pieces after a priest had been destroyed by abusive members of the congregation (or occasionally bullying senior clergy). Some congregations are definitely “toxic” and have a track record of damaging clergy. We need to find ways of tackling bullying and abusive behaviour at all levels.(It also has to be acknowledged that the clergy are often the bullies and the congregation the victims).

    I would recommend careful study of G. Lloyd Rediger’s books “The Toxic Congregation” and “Clergy Killers”. In addition, “Harmful Religion” (Lawrence Osborn and Andrew Walker) is a must-read. I would also recommend a document produced by the Unite Union in the UK, called “Dignity at Work”. Although it is UK orientated and written from a trade union perspective, it is a very helpful summary of the different types of bullying and how to deal with it.

    “I wonder: in the UK, was a solution found outside of wider trade unions? Do you have the sense that making use of an independent ombudsperson (outside the wider union discussion) would be helpful?”

    The problem (as I see it) is that any independent organisation has to be acknowledged by both parties and have a certain amount of authority to be able to keep things within the framework of the agreed rules and procedures. In a conflict between clergy and their bishop/diocese, the power almost always lies with the bishop/diocese. They have the legal and HR backups, whilst the clergy is often isolated and unsure of what the proper process should be. Bishops (in the UK anyway) are notorious for “bending the rules” in order to sort out a problem with the least amount of effort. There needs to be someone who can speak on behalf of the clergy and say “with respect, bishop, you have to abide by the proper processes. You can’t be prosecutor, judge and jury.”

    To go back to something I mentioned before, often clergy in trouble with their bishop will find themselves called to a meeting at short notice.If they are not careful, they find that they are faced with two or three senior members of staff (bishop, archdeacon and HR adviser). Out numbered and not aware of what OUGHT to happen, they can be pressured into decisions that may not be in their best interests. All clergy in such positions should be advised that they can take a friend to accompany them to such meetings. (Sadly, even this advice is not always given.) But often a friend won’t know much about what is going on. This is where a union rep (properly trained) becomes important.

    I’m not saying that a union is the only or best solution to some of these issues. But experience in the UK has shown that properly trained union reps can be one way of addressing power imbalances and helping to prevent clergy being crushed by a diocesan system.

    (I am afraid that I know far too many clergy who have left active ministry because they have felt abandoned or betrayed by their bishop or archdeacon. Quite apart from the appalling damage it does to their lives and the lives of their families, there is a huge cost to the Church. Large amounts of money have been invested in training these clergy, only to be thrown away when they leave the ministry in despair a few years later.)

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